Monthly Archives: March 2009

Our Apothecary Shop was the Woods and Fields

Samuel Thomson wrote in 1835 that his “apothecary’s shop was the woods and the fields.”(1)  He was promoting the health benefits of plants and herbs, something that is perhaps even more relevant  today with our increased life spans. We’re probably not even close to discovering all the curative powers that exist in nature, but one thing IS clear, time spent outdoors in nature has many benefits to adults and, especially, children.

DCF 1.0

Nature doesn’t have been somewhere you go, or something you see on TV. Natural habitat gardens, and the life they encourage, invite the beauty and daily miracles of nature right into your backyard, allowing you to “share the magic” with the kids in your life.
Children are usually fascinated with the complexities of nature, and a backyard habitat is a great way to give them a lifelong connection to the outdoors.

‘A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is
our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true
instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring is dimmed and even
lost before we reach adulthood.

But alarming increases in childhood obesity reflect that children are spending much more time indoors than they ever have, leading to poor health as well as social, mental and learning disorders.

The National Wildlife Federation is leading initiatives to try to reconnect our kids with nature and get them outdoors. Their Reversing Nature Deficit program encourages kids to play outdoors for at least an hour a day. According to studies, unstructured activities in natural environments (“free play”) helps kids develop problem-solving and critical thinking skills, stimulates their creativity, and even dramatically improves test scores and grades. Other studies show that children who spend time in nature show reductions in hyperactivity and attention-deficit disorder.

Kids do benefit enormously from time visiting natural areas such as beaches and
mountains, and exposure to outdoor education programs can increase their
self-esteem, confidence, cooperation and improves grades. However, landscaping your yard as a haven for friendly wildlife such as birds and pollinators lets you AND your kids have those beneficial interactions with nature everyday.

DCF 1.0A habitat garden’s not just good for kids, though. If you’re a gardener, you already know how good it feels to get your “hands in the dirt”, and a stroll through a summer garden with a glass of wine and weed fork can be a great after-work stress reliever. Gardening is a highly therapeutic process, teaching us patience, acceptance of those things out of our control, and a sense of rootedness to nature and its cycles. Horticultural therapy is becoming a widely accepted means for addressing physical and mental illnesses and disabilities, and “healing gardens” are often used as a therapeutic tool for the critically ill. The process of gardening is holistic, combining cognitive, creative and physical activities, and can be a valuable tool for helping people improve the quality of their lives.

‘Everything that slows us down and forces patience, everything that sets us back into the slow circles of  nature, is a help. Gardening is an instrument of grace.‘  (MAY SARTON)

So start looking at your backyard as more than just a place to put a pool, a BBQ and a lawn. Consider it a prescription for better health, for you, your kids, and the planet. Even if all you do is give up the chemical lawn treatment and add some bird and pollinator-friendly plants, tending them will keep you healthy in more ways than one. Gardening is a great form of exercise – 45 minutes of gardening burns can burn as many calories as 30 minutes of aerobics! And, gardening can help relieve stress and anxiety, and their related diseases, by providing a creative outlet and a place to relax and escape from our frenzied lives. Plus, you
can garden in your own back yard, without using fossil fuels to drive to a heated gym.

So what’s stopping you? Start planning your backyard habitat and grow your own “apothecary of woods and fields”!

Footnote 1:
New Guide to Health: or Botanic Family Physician
(Boston: Adams, 1835 p. 9)


Red Buckeye

Last week I did a talk on pollinator-friendly landscaping at the annual conference of the Ecological Landscaping Association. It was a great place to spend a Friday, because the conference and marketplace was something of a meeting of the minds of every 21st century plant geek on the right coast. Case in point: After I finished my talk, a woman approached me and told me that she grows Red Buckeye, (which I had mentioned in my talk as a good tree for pollinators), and that when it blooms, Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are ALL OVER the flowers. She lives in central New Hampshire, which is a similar climate to our cold Worcester Hills river valley.

Red Buckeye (Aesculus pavia) is an understory tree native to the woods from North Carolina southwards, so it’s not a tree you’d see in the wild here in Massachusetts. I’ve seen it growing at Garden in the Woods (the botanic garden of New England Wild Flower Society in Framingham, MA) where it blooms in early June:


When you look at the flowers (below) you can immediately see why this tree is so popular with hummingbirds. The red tubular flowers are perfectly adapted for them to drink nectar from the base of the flower, using their extra-long tongues (pollinating the flowers in the process).

Red-Buckeye-closeupWhen choosing native plants for my own garden, I tend to look for plants that are native to the ecosystems of central Massachusetts. Plants that originate locally are best for a wildlife garden because they are adapted to meet the needs of the local wildlife who co-evolved alongside them.

But, when somebody tells me about a non-native Hummingbird magnet plant that is not invasive here, I simply MUST grow it!  The presence of feisty Hummingbirds in our garden is something that inspired my interest in gardening for habitat, so I’ll plant anything that brings ’em in. The Red Buckeye shown above is growing in the moist meadow-edge garden at Garden in the Woods….just the habitat that we have in abundance here!

Now, where can I find a Red Buckeye, either plants or seeds? It’s now on my Plant List for 2009 ….